For the first time in many years the prospect of a comprehensive overhaul of our immigration system is looming on the horizon. Our federal immigration policy has been woefully inadequate for some time. Inadequate border security combined with an insufficient number of visas available to fill the necessary jobs required by our economy have led to a flood of undocumented persons entering clandestinely into the United States.
Many of these enter the country across our southern border. These individuals and families usually come out of necessity escaping crushing poverty to seek a better life than had been possible in their native land. So desperate are the conditions of their homelands that they willingly expose themselves to great risk crossing an inhospitable desert and placing their lives in the hands of ruthless traffickers who often abandon them at the first sign of danger. If they reach the United States they are forced to live in the shadows of society where they remain subject to exploitation because of their lack of legal standing. Estimates place the number of these undocumented persons at more than 11 million. Admittedly, there are many other ways that people can find themselves “out of status” or undocumented, such as when their visa expires.
Last week I listened to the news networks as they debated a research project on the net impact of immigration. The question was whether undocumented immigrants pump more into our economy or take more out of our economy. What was implicitly being debated was the value of a human being. Can our worth and welcome in this land be determined merely by how much we produce or consume? This is a dangerous path. What about the elderly and the disabled? Are they less worthy of our protection? Is human dignity tied to our economic productivity? This is certainly not the teaching of Jesus Christ. “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers or sisters you did to me.” (Mt 25:40)
As a pastor my most pressing concerns are with the moral dimensions of this situation. For many years the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been advocating for a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system in the United States. We recognize that we have to leave the responsibility of hammering out the details of the best possible legislation to legislators. Nonetheless, I applaud those courageous Senators who are seeking a bipartisan agreement that would bring desperately needed reform to our immigration system.
As priest and bishop I have seen too many of our brothers and sisters excluded from full participation in American society simply because they lack proper documentation. I have seen families suffering under the burden of separations that can last for many years, and talented young people being deprived a future because of their lack of legal standing in our society. I have witnessed crime and violence going unreported because the undocumented victim fears deportation. We are all being impoverished by the status quo. The situation is even more tragic when these undocumented persons who came here as children are still being penalized because of choices that their parents made, often under great duress. This situation cries out for a just and compassionate remedy!
Unfortunately, many Catholics reduce this urgent moral matter to an ideological or partisan question. This is not a left-wing cause or a right-wing cause. Our analysis and response is based on the Gospel and the principles of Catholic social teaching. The kind of reform which the Catholic bishops are seeking recognizes the sovereign right of a nation to secure its borders. Border security serves a necessary purpose, including our nation’s ability to keep out criminals and anyone who poses a legitimate danger to society. We need secure borders, but we cannot stop here. We need a plan that will help keep families together (mothers, fathers and children) and that will make family unification a cornerstone of immigration reform. There needs to be a way for undocumented persons of good moral character who are living in the United States to adjust their status to obtain lawful residence and create an eventual path to citizenship. There also needs to be adequate means for migrants to enter, live and work in the United States legally. At present there are far too few visas available to fill many of the jobs that are required on a stable basis. Providing a sufficient number of visas does not take away jobs, but provides legal access to many jobs that otherwise might go unfilled. This is particularly true in agriculture and the service industry. This scarcity fuels the drive for illegal immigration. In addition to these immediate measures our nation, an economic superpower, ought to lead the way in addressing the root causes of migration, such as underdevelopment and poverty in sending countries, and help foster long term solutions in those places.
I pray that the leaders and the citizens of our great nation will seize this opportunity to remedy a deplorable situation. Lest we forget, our national soul has been forged throughout history by a readiness to offer hospitality to the downtrodden and opportunity to those who wish to work in support of their families and a brighter future.